Oregon Finally Has a White Wine to Call Its Own

Courtesy Nicolas-Jay

Oregon’s Willamette Valley is synonymous with pinot noir, but a signature white wine has always remained elusive for the region. However, a new grape is emerging—or re-emerging—and bringing new energy to a global favorite.

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Background on Blanc

Back in the 1960s, when winemakers moved up from California to Oregon, they brought pinot and chardonnay with them. The two varieties are perfect partners in Burgundy; what’s not to love in Oregon? Jason Lett, winemaker and co-owner of Eyrie Vineyards, whose father, David Lett, planted the first chardonnay in Willamette Valley, said the reception to the grape was fairly strong. Although, a few factors quickly knocked chardonnay off its mantle.

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The first—and possibly the biggest issue many point to—was clonal material. Chardonnay would be harvested weeks after pinot noir, but still wouldn’t achieve the proper ripeness levels. It wasn’t until David Adelsheim of Adelsheim Vineyards did a winemaking stage in Burgundy that the issue of clones came to light. In France, the chardonnay was being picked at the same time, if not earlier, than pinot noir, and he suspected that the clones brought up from California weren’t the right fit for Willamette Valley’s terroir. 

Courtesy Adelsheim

That aforementioned ripeness (or lack thereof)? Also an issue. People’s palates were attuned to the rich and ripe styles of California, and wines like Kendall-Jackson became a north star for winemaking. The influence of Robert Parker also put these bold, fruit-forward styles in vogue. “There was a perception of ripeness about what New World chardonnay should taste like,” says Eugenia Keegan, general manager of Jackson Family Wines for Willamette Valley, which was something Oregon winemakers wouldn’t be able to easily achieve, due to climate and terroir. Oak use became more prevalent, but it still didn’t recreate the popular California style. 

As a result, a lot of winemakers ripped up their chardonnay, says Lett, giving more space to pinot noir or pinot gris, another white grape that people thought had potential. 

Why Chardonnay, Why Now?

Because of these tribulations, Oregon chardonnay production is tiny. Overall, the state only accounts for about one percent of wine made in the United States, and chardonnay is just five percent of that production, according to Josh Bergström of Bergström Wines. With just a little under 2,000 acres under vine, chardonnay is still a small category—but today, one that’s garnering huge interest. Several estates, like Eyrie, Bergström, and Adelsheim, held steady with chardonnay throughout the decades; their knowledge, coupled with the resurgent interest in the grape and new plantings, is bringing Willamette Valley chardonnay into the limelight.

Courtesy Big Table Wine

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, building on Adelsheim’s discoveries in Burgundy, the movement to bring over better clones began, spurring one stage of the revolution. With better plant materials, winemakers began refining their vinification and winemaking techniques, which led to further discoveries about the grape’s potential. 

Embracing the Land

Dedicating key vineyard sites to chardonnay not only aids in the growing quality of the wines, it shows a winemaker’s commitment to the grape. At Big Table Farm, Clare Carver and her husband Brian Marcy are putting new plantings in places with, “the best aspect, the highest elevation; it’s the most treasured part of the vineyard site, and that’s what we’re giving to chardonnay,” says Carver. 

Carolyn Wells-Kramer/Courtesy WillaKenzie

Attention to terroir is also causing winemakers to fine-tune their farming and winemaking and play to the region’s natural strengths. A prominence of marine sedimentary and volcanic soils often bring notes of salinity to the wine. “[One of] the recurring threads of chardonnay across the region is the interplay of fruit and non-fruit,” says Erik Kramer, winemaker at WillaKenzie. For Jay Boberg, co-owner of Nicolas-Jay, who points to Chablis for stylistic comparison of his wines, “acidity is super-important, and we talk about picking dates [frequently].” If picked too late and acidity is lost, it’s a harder problem to rectify. 

Courtesy Nicolas-Jay

Chardonnay has long been called “a winemaker’s canvas” as it’s a fairly neutral grape, both aromatically and flavor-wise, and is easily malleable. “I believe chardonnay shows a winemaker’s hand,” says Carver of Big Table Farm. “There are more points in the [winemaking] process when you can really affect the wine. I feel chardonnay has an amazing range and here is Oregon we’re still navigating that.”

Culture Shifts

A pendulum swing in drinking culture towards leaner, crisper styles of wine has also bolstered interest in Oregon chardonnay. “I think of wine in terms of volume (I’m a musician as well),” says Shane Moore, winemaker at Gran Moraine. “It doesn’t have that huge volume that California chardonnay has; it’s a little more toned down. You can have a conversation with the wine, rather than have it talk at you.”

Briana Marie/Courtesy Gran Moraine

It also comes full circle back to Burgundy, in a way. As one of the industry’s greatest strides forward came from Adelsheim’s time in Burgundy, Burgundian winemakers are now taking an interest in the burgeoning region. Nicolas-Jay is a partnership between Boberg and Jean-Nicolas Méo, of the famed Burgundy estate Méo-Camuzet; Lingua Franca, co-founded by master sommelier Larry Stone, David Honig, and Dominique Lafon, has Burgundy-trained French native Thomas Savre at the winemaking helm; and Josh Bergström studied in Burgundy before returning to his family’s pioneering estate. 

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With all the pieces in place, Oregon is poised for a chardonnay revolution. “As a winemaker, I think chardonnay is harder to make than pinot noir,” says Lingua Franca’s Savre. “It’s so many little details. And I think you can tell we are working to push ourselves to make better wine.” 

Five to Try

Big Table Farm, Chardonnay, Yamhill-Carlton, 2018

Courtesy Big Table Wine

Carver and Marcy work in a low-intervention style of winemaking, fermenting with natural yeasts and leaving the wines unfined and unfiltered. Nervy and with bright acidity, the wines show flint and smoke along with citrus and orchard fruits. 

To buy: $48, bigtablewine.com

Bergström, ‘Sigrid’ Chardonnay, Willamette Valley, 2018

Courtesy Bergstrom Wines

Sigrid sources fruit from several AVAs within Willamette Valley and gives snapshot of the region as a whole. The perfect interplay of fruit and savory, it shows power without being too powerful, and layers of complexity continue to reveal themselves the deeper into the glass you go.

To buy: $100, wineshop.bergstromwines.com

WillaKenzie, Estate Chardonnay, Yamhill-Carlton, 2018

Courtesy WillaKenzie 

Sourced from a small one-acre parcel with marine sedimentary soils, this chardonnay brings focus to the savory qualities of the region. The wine plays up the salinity yet brings forward a beautiful floral character.

To buy: $75, willakenzie.com

Nicolas-Jay, Bishop Creek Chardonnay, Yamhill-Carlton, 2018

Courtesy Nicolas-Jay

The organically farmed vines were grafted over from pinot gris to chardonnay several years ago and this is the first official vintage from the site. Hints of pear and floral notes meet a richness in the mouthfeel that’s balanced by the bright acidity.

To buy: $70, nicolas-jay.com

Lingua Franca, Estate Chardonnay, Eola-Amity Hills, 2018

Courtesy Lingua Franca

The volcanic soils from the site bring a flinty, salty note to the lemon curd and citrus fruits of this wine. Round yet fresh, there’s a lot of textural intrigue here.

To buy: $55, linguafranca.wine